"I'm terrified," says Chloë Sevigny between takes on the Pittsburgh set of her new thriller, Those Who Kill. She's not scared by the scene she's shooting, in which her character, homicide detective Catherine Jensen, chats with a coroner (Kerry O'Malley) over a grotesquely desiccated corpse in the morgue. Sevigny is vocalizing her deepest fear: "What if I get stuck on a crappy cop show?"
It's a very real concern for Sevigny, who has made a name for herself by fearlessly exploring the intersection of sex and violence in projects like Boys Don't Cry, American Psycho and American Horror Story. In recent years, "it's been harder to find good parts," she says. "I'm turning 40 in two years, and I want to have some security and to have a kid. Paychecks are appealing."
Three episodes into the 10-week first season, showrunner Glen Morgan (The X-Files) says Sevigny has been OK with the series "as long as she thinks we're trying to be cool and a little bit different and edgy. She has a career and a reputation based on that, and she doesn't want it ruined. And I understand that."
Judging from the pilot, there's not much chance of that, since Catherine may be just as disturbed as the psychos she pursues. Paintings of John Wayne Gacy's and Jeffrey Dahmer's houses hang on her walls. She compulsively cuts herself with razor blades. And she is convinced that her stepfather (Bruce Davison) is a serial killer.
That's why she teams up with Thomas Schaeffer (James D'Arcy) — a forensic psychologist haunted by his own deeply troubled past — to catch sociopaths, including, possibly, her stepdad. Still, says Sevigny, "the producers swore to me there would not be a lot of cop action. But they swore a lot of things, so we'll see how those turn out. I always want to do things that feel more fresh."
She has watched her former Big Love sister-wife Jeanne Tripplehorn bring home a steady salary by chasing down crazies every week on CBS's Criminal Minds. "Jeanne appreciates the work and is enjoying it," says Sevigny, before adding, "I feel like it is a little more of a punching-the-clock thing when you're doing that kind of show."
Minds has long been criticized for its depiction of violence against women, and Sevigny hopes Those Who Kill doesn't go down the same twisted path. "I was very cautious about not wanting to put more of that out into the world," she says.
Morgan has been trying to avoid that obstacle, but he's hit a few other roadblocks along the way. Behind the scenes, Morgan expresses some frustration that A&E, production company Imagine and studio Fox 21 would prefer a more conventional serial-killer-of-the-week procedural, while he'd like to make a complex, character-driven drama based on a Danish TV series. It's the classic tale of the showrunner vs. the suits: "I'm challenging them to push [Sevigny's character into darker places], and Fox 21 is trying to pull it back," says Morgan. "They would like Chloë acting like Katherine Heigl."
A three-part arc about a female perp also drew fire from the studio. He says, "I have Fox 21 yelling at me, 'We don't get it — she's a killer, but we have sympathy for her! How are we supposed to feel?'"
For its part, the studio downplays the conflict. "As a show is finding its footing, there are always creative conversations between the producers, the studio and the network about structure and character," Fox 21 president Bert Salke says. "But like all strong and experienced showrunners, Glen muscled through it, and we couldn't be prouder of the show he delivered."
Almost everyone on set feels confident that Sevigny will be able to bring depth to the material, no matter how the scripts turn out. "She's like a silent-film actress," raves O'Malley (Shameless). "Her face is so wildly expressive, and emotions pass like clouds through her eyes. We're going to see her tell us stories just with her face."
The only person who seems to doubt Sevigny's abilities is Sevigny. "I'm not sure," she says. "People always say, 'Well, you're going to elevate it because of who you are.' That's not really fair."
At least she's got a solid crime-solving partner in D'Arcy, who played Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock (the fact that Those Who Kill airs after Bates Motel is "just a fun coincidence," he says). "He's very compelling — he has some sort of inner churning," says O'Malley. "With Chloë and James at the helm, we should be in good shape."
But don't expect their characters to engage in a Mulder-and-Scully type of romance, warns Morgan. Schaeffer is happily married, and Jensen acts out her sexual impulses via reckless encounters with strangers. "The shippers are going to hate my guts," says Morgan, who opposed the Mulder-Scully hookup in his X-Files days. "Yeah, sure, Jensen and Schaeffer could be together — but once you do that, it's over."
Those Who Kill premieres Monday, March 3 at 10/9c on A&E.